Bleacher Report's 2020-21 Men's College Basketball End-of-Season Awards
The 2020-21 men's college basketball regular season has come to a close, but before we can fully shift gears to filling out brackets, it's time to hand out some national awards.
The National Player of the Year race has been rather uneventful. Iowa's Luka Garza was our pick last year, and he ran away with his second consecutive NPOY title. Cade Cunningham for Freshman of the Year has also been something of a foregone conclusion since the preseason.
But other honors such as Head Coach of the Year, Transfer of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year were much more debatable and went to guys who would have been surprising picks a few months ago.
Bleacher Report's national writers, Kerry Miller and David Kenyon, selected the winners of this season's awards.
Player of the Year: Luka Garza, Iowa
There were a few days in early February when it felt—for the first time since he announced his decision to return for another year of college hoops in early August—like someone other than Luka Garza might win the various National Player of the Year Awards.
Iowa had lost four of its last five games and was plummeting in the national rankings and projected NCAA tournament seeding. And in the final game of that rough stretch, Garza had one of his worst games of the season with 18 points and just two rebounds in a loss at Indiana. Meanwhile, Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu had just posted a triple-double in a big win over Wisconsin, and Baylor and Gonzaga were undefeated with a combined five valid candidates for NPOY.
But then Iowa and Garza turned things around in a big way to make this one of the easiest NPOY decisions ever.
He had 22 points and 10 rebounds in a convincing win over Rutgers on Feb. 10, went for 30 points in the 15-point win at Wisconsin a week later and then ended the debate with 24 points and 11 rebounds in the 16-point win at Ohio State on the final day of February.
The Hawkeyes big man isn't quite leading the nation in scoring anymore. Max Abmas of Oral Roberts went on an absolute tear through February to at least temporarily take that crown. At 23.8 points per game, though, Garza is the No. 1 scorer among major-conference teams. He has scored at least 14 points in all but one game, reaching 30 on seven occasions.
Freshman of the Year: Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
While Player of the Year was a simple decision, Freshman of the Year was a tough one.
Much has been said about the struggles of the freshmen at Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina, but there has been a lot of outstanding play in less traditional locations. Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs and USC's Evan Mobley have thrived en route to joining the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Michigan's Hunter Dickinson has been so impactful on both ends of the floor. And I don't envy anyone who has to vote for SEC Freshman of the Year with LSU's Cameron Thomas, Arkansas' Moses Moody and Auburn's Sharife Cooper each worthy of that title.
Cade Cunningham has to be the pick, though, if only because he turned nothing into a whole lot of something in Stillwater.
Oklahoma State lost five of its six leading scorers from a team that wasn't even going to make the NCAA tournament last year. Then in June, the NCAA hit Oklahoma State with a one-year postseason ban. That ruling is still under appeal, which is why we now expect to see Cunningham in the NCAA tournament. But for much of the offseason, we expected him to be a one-man show on a .500-ish team going nowhere fast.
Instead, much like Trae Young a few years ago for the team on the other side of the Bedlam rivalry, Cunningham has not only been individually spectacular but so influential in making everyone around him look better, too.
He'll enter the Big 12 tournament averaging 19.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.9 blocks per game while shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range and 85.4 percent from the free-throw line. And he'll enter the NCAA tournament with plenty of crunch-time experience. Oklahoma State has played in 13 games decided by five points or fewer, plus a 14th game that it won by eight in double overtime. The Cowboys won 10 of those games, in large part because of his wise-beyond-his-years presence leading this offense.
Hopefully he has a few more of those tricks up his shooting sleeve for later this month.
Coach of the Year: Juwan Howard, Michigan
Coach of the Year is usually the most spirited debate, because it's the award with the loosest criteria.
Do you give it to the coach of the best team, to the coach of the team that most exceeded preseason expectations, to the coach of the team that best handled in-season adversity or to the coach who you feel did the best job with the X's and O's and in-game adjustments?
Normally, that's four different coaches, and it's closer to a dozen once you account for the debates about who best fits each of those four descriptions.
This year, you could legitimately pick Juwan Howard for all four options.
I would still say that the best team is undefeated Gonzaga, so I wouldn't be surprised or bothered if Mark Few ultimately wins this. But Michigan is undeniably one of the five best teams in the country, which nobody saw coming. In preseason predictions, both CBS Sports and Three Man Weave pegged the Wolverines for a ninth-place finish in the Big Ten.
Not only has Michigan been much better than anticipated, but it endured a lengthy COVID-19 pause without skipping a beat. The Wolverines went 23 days between games and then came back to record five consecutive impressive victories, including back-to-back wins over Ohio State and Iowa—both Top 10 opponents.
And perhaps most impressive of all is the work Howard and his staff have done with senior point guard Mike Smith. While at Columbia, Smith was a high-volume scorer. He put up 22.8 points per game last season. But he came to Ann Arbor and became much more of a distributor. He's only averaging 8.6 points per game, but he's one of the top assist men in the Big Ten and shoots 46 percent from three-point range when he does call his own number.
The biggest unknown about Michigan heading into the season was how it could possibly replace everything Zavier Simpson did as the on-floor general. Hunter Dickinson, Franz Wagner and Isaiah Livers get most of the national attention, but getting Smith to buy into (and thrive in) a new role on a new team might be the biggest reason Michigan is 19-2.
Transfer of the Year: Carlik Jones, Louisville
The just-discussed Mike Smith is a formidable runner-up in this debate. Oregon's Eugene Omoruyi is very much worthy of an honorable mention, too. Baylor's Adam Flagler and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua would also be fantastic candidates for first-team All-Transfer, if such a thing existed.
But when a dude goes from Radford to "mortal lock for first-team All-ACC," everyone else in the country is fighting for second place.
That's what Carlik Jones has done at Louisville, on pace to join some elite ACC company in the process.
In the past 28 seasons, only six unique ACC players have finished a season with at least 17.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game: Bob Sura (twice), Ky Bowman (twice), Greivis Vasquez, Cole Anthony, RJ Barrett and Grant Hill. And if we were to add a "fewer than 2.5 turnovers per game" qualifier, Jones is one rebound away from becoming the only member of that club.
He has been Mr. Everything for Louisville, with the clearest example of that coming in the loss to Wisconsin.
Jones missed that game for an undisclosed reason—Louisville was playing its first game in 18 days because of a COVID-19 pause—and the team looked just plain lost without him. It trailed 25-4 early and committed a season-worst 18 turnovers in an 85-48 blowout loss.
Once he returned, though, all was right in the world and the Cardinals won their next five games.
Save for the regular-season-ending dud against Virginia, Jones has scored at least 11 points in every game. He also has multiple assists in all but one contest. He rarely leaves the floor and is arguably the most valuable player in the conference.
Sixth Man of the Year: JD Notae, Arkansas
With honorable mentions to Gonzaga's Andrew Nembhard, Michigan's Chaundee Brown Jr. and several key reserves at Baylor (Matthew Mayer, Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua and Adam Flagler), our award for best non-starter in the country goes to Arkansas' JD Notae.
The transfer from Jacksonville has been a microwave scorer for the Razorbacks. The second Notae comes off the bench, he's ready to let it fly.
He averages 23.1 points per 40 minutes, as well as 5.7 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 2.6 steals. Already this season, there have been nine games in which Notae scored at least 18 points off the bench. And despite playing only 22.3 minutes on average, he ranks second on the team at 12.9 points per game.
That sort of ace in the hole has been the hallmark of Eric Musselman's best teams. Two years ago at Nevada, Jazz Johnson was that guy who could come in and immediately catch fire. Before that, it was Caleb Martin and D.J. Fenner who sometimes started the game on the bench and finished as a leading scorer.
Soon-to-be-lottery-pick Moses Moody understandably gets most of the attention thrown Arkansas' way, but Notae is going to catch a lot of people by surprise with his explosiveness off the bench during the NCAA tournament.
Defensive Player of the Year: Neemias Queta, Utah State
In the past decade, only two men's college basketball players have averaged at least 9.5 rebounds, 2.9 blocks and 1.0 steals for a season. Those players are Kentucky's Anthony Davis in 2011-12 and Utah State's Neemias Queta this year.
The junior from Portugal has been both literally and figuratively a colossal presence in the paint for the Aggies. Per KenPom, they finish the regular season ranked second in the nation in defensive rebounding percentage, eighth in two-point field-goal defense and 11th in block percentage. The only other team in the country in the top 50 in all three categories is Memphis, and the Tigers were 38th in rebounding and 33rd in two-point defense.
It's just so rare for a team to be that good at both contesting shots and limiting second-chance opportunities. Oftentimes, a shot-blocker will reject it right back to the shooting team (which counts as an offensive rebound), or he'll go for a block and alter the shot but will take himself out of the rebounding equation and open the door for the shooting team to get the ball back.
Not Queta, though. He's fourth in the nation in block percentage and 20th in defensive rebounding percentage, making it ever so difficult for teams to get clean looks or second chances.
The steals are just a fun bonus, proof positive (along with his 2.8 assists per game) that he has good vision and hands.
Queta has always been a force on defense, but he has really blossomed on offense as of late, too. Three weeks ago, his career high in scoring was 24 points. He then had 26-, 30- and 32-point efforts in the second half of February. Look for this mid-major star to get some second- and third-team All-American love in the coming days.
Most Improved Player: E.J. Liddell, Ohio State
E.J. Liddell was a top-50 overall recruit in the 2019 class, which usually means big expectations right away. But with veterans Kaleb Wesson, Andre Wesson and Kyle Young crowding the frontcourt rotation, he was forced to settle into a backup role, averaging 16.6 minutes per game as a freshman.
With both Wessons out of the picture, Liddell has blossomed into the Buckeyes' biggest star.
At 16.0 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game, he is leading this potential NCAA tournament No. 1 seed in all three categories.
Ohio State's primary post presence has taken a big positive step in his perimeter development, as well. Liddell shot just 5-of-26 (19.2 percent) from three-point range last year, and he was 1-of-10 from deep seven games into this season. Since then, he's 20-of-48 (41.7 percent) and has made this already unguardable offense that much more complicated to slow down.
Liddell has scored between 15 and 23 points in 10 of his last 11 games, typically with six to eight rebounds. Even though the Buckeyes have struggled a bit down the stretch, his metronome-like consistency has not wavered.
This may well just be the beginning of his breakout, too. If recent consensus mock drafts are any indication, it's pretty unlikely that Liddell would get picked if he left early. He'll probably come back and could be the 2021-22 Big Ten POY.
Most Underrated Player: Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua, Baylor
When Baylor forward Tristan Clark medically retired (knee injuries) barely a week before the season began, it felt like the Bears had no hope of living up the hype of being the No. 2 team in the preseason AP Top 25.
For evidence of what we were worried might happen to Baylor, take a look at Arizona State.
Like the Bears, the Sun Devils have three outstanding backcourt players. Remy Martin, Alonzo Verge Jr. and Josh Christopher all have a future in professional basketball, much like Baylor's Jared Butler, Davion Mitchell and MaCio Teague. But without a legitimate post presence (and with minimal defensive effort in general most nights), Arizona State has been a sub-.500 disaster.
Without Clark, Baylor's frontcourt situation became 6'5" Mark Vital (a great interior defender for his size who has never been much of a scorer), 6'10" Flo Thamba (had a total of 101 points and 114 rebounds over the previous two seasons) and a 6'8" transfer from UNLV by the name of Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (AKA J.T.T.).
We didn't expect much from J.T.T. as he averaged just 3.4 points and 3.5 rebounds in his lone season with the Runnin' Rebels. But he has been an indispensable asset for the Bears as both an offensive rebounder and a rim protector.
His value was already abundantly clear before Baylor's lengthy COVID-19 pause. But when he missed the first game back (vs. Iowa State) and played sparingly in the second game (at Kansas), the Bears damn near lost to one of the worst major-conference teams this season and did eventually suffer their first loss of the season.
Baylor is undefeated when J.T.T. plays at least a dozen minutes, and in the two games during which he didn't reach that mark, it looked like a team that could get bounced in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.
But when people talk about the key players on this team, it's usually Butler, Mitchell, Teague and Vital. J.T.T. deserves more praise than he's getting because he is for Baylor what Mamadi Diakite was on that Virginia team that won it all two years ago.